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Advice on Harmoniums?


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I realised, only this week, that I have had an unfair perspective of harmoniums. Dissecting this, I am annoyed with myself because I have judged them on a very limited experience of poor instruments (or instruments in poor condition) played badly; the very same perspective as the ordinary person in the street (or perhaps church) might have of the pipe organ!

Anyway, spotting the Scott Brothers' home concerts such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yS3t-xzVGqc as well as stumbling into some recordings on Spotify of Joris Verdin, playing Franck and others, have made me consider getting hold of one and self-learning. I have missed what looked like a good opportunity on eBay https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/174476547488

I wonder if anyone has any experience or advice, in particular of how long they take to master and whether they are rewarding to play? 

 

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Hi

I started off playing reed organs alongside pipe organs almost 6 decades ago, and I need to declare an interest as a member, and until recently, council member of the Reed Organ Society (https://www.reedsoc.org/).  The true Harmonium - a pressure reed organ in the format patented by the Debain company in France in the middle of the 19th century is a very expressive and flexible instrument with repertoire from some of the well known organ composers of the day.  The key feature that gives the instrument it's expressiveness is the stop marked "Expression", which when drawn cuts the wind reservoir out, so that wind pressure, and hence volume, is controlled solely by manipulating the blowing treadles - that takes a lot of practice to master.  Here's an example played by me in concert on an early Debain - the organ has no swell mechanism, so crescendos etc. are all produced by the feet:- 

The first thing to learn with any reed organ is not to operate the blowing treadles in time with the music - that always leads to a jerky sound.  Later in the 19th Century, the French firm of Mustel developed the concept into what many regard as a the "Rolls-Royce" of Harmoniums, the "Art-Harmonium" or "Kunstharmonium" which is the instrument that many of Kerg-Elart's Harmonium pieces were written for.

Finding a Harmonium in good playing order isn't easy, and there are only a handful of people who restore these instruments (I've just had a small folding Harmonium restored, and my full-size one is away at the moment).  

The other side of the reed organ coin are the "American Organs" (suction reed organs) which are more common - mainly due to mass production.  There are some good examples around, originally in the higher price bracket!( and Liszt wrote for the suction reed organ.

Strictly speaking, "Harmonium" was a registered trade mark of the Debain company, but like "Hoover" has become a generic term for all similar instruments (including suction organs by those who don't know any better and in some European countries).  

I'd better shut up now & go & practice the music for church tomorrow!  Here's an example of a Mustel from another concert:- 

Every Blessing

Tony

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Wow, thanks Tony for such an informative response and a link which in turn opens up lots of other links which give me plenty to digest. I’ll post back once I’ve read it all and see if my conclusions pass muster.

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The Rushworth and Dreaper Apollo reed organ, which had electric blowing and a conventional pedal board (and draw stops), is worth a mention.

http://tardis.dl.ac.uk/FreeReed/organ_book/node22.html

The only one I’ve played makes quite a racket, but in a resonant building it’s a reasonably effective (and compact) substitute for a pipe organ. Having a pedal board was useful, but it was clearly in need of an overhaul. I recall playing the same instrument as a boy when it was in better condition - I doubt it had had any attention in the intervening years. I suppose the question would be whether the cost of renovation would be justified. (I think the church in question mostly uses an electronic keyboard nowadays ....)

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Hi

I avoided mention of the 2mp (& other similar) reed organs which, although using the same technology as the foot blown instruments, lack the expressiveness of such instruments.  They have their place - and even more so in pre-electronic organ days where they were produced as home practice organs, and for use in smaller/impoverished churches.  The market segment these days that's filled by digital organs.  I've played quite a few such organs over the years.  In general, a reed organ with an electric blower misses out on the big advantage of the instruments, but the larger pedal Harmoniums & the like are worth restoring (in general) for their historic interest - and they can still function well as practice instruments & the like - and they'll outlast any electronic organ!

Every Blessing

Tony

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Thank you. That rather confirms my impression. The instrument I referred to does a good job at pushing out plenty of noise to support congregational singing, and the relatively resonant acoustics temper the sound in the body of the church. But playing it solo was rather unsatisfying. Not the subtlest of instruments!

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10 hours ago, Nic DAVIDSON PORTER said:

One of my favourite LPs in my Dad's collection was the Vlach Quartet amd Miroslav Kampelsheimer on harmonium playing Dvorak's op. 47 Bagatelles, now on YouTube if you are curious. It sounds like an "American Organ", and I'm guessing they were written after his period in  the USA.

Hi Nic

It's thought that the Dvorak Bagatelles are one of the very few pieces written by a significant composer for American Organ for the reason you suggest.  I've not looked at the score - in performance terms there are differences between the 2 styles of reed organ, most notably the keyboard split point, which is e/f above middle c in the vast majority of Harmoniums & middle b/c in most American organs, which can cause problems transferring works written for one type of instrument to the other - depending on what use the composer has made of the split.  I've heard recordings of the Dvorak using both types of instrument, so maybe he didn't make much use of the split keyboard facility - I don't know.

Every Blessing

Tony 

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Thanks Nic for sharing this, and having just listened to a few recordings of this that is one where the harmonium is most prominent to the recording balance as well as a great performance. The score is available at https://imslp.org/wiki/Bagatelles%2C_Op.47_(Dvo%C5%99%C3%A1k%2C_Anton%C3%ADn) and others. I note that the title page says harmonium or piano. I'd say that the writing isn't pianistic though, with sustained chords and swells within the chord. I supposed a pianist could arpeggiate but that's not written and it could easily end up sounding like a choir practice accompaniment. There's more doubling of the string parts than I'd realised through my headphones too. The swells within held chords would be too much for the pipe organ without frequent stop changes within a phrase. You'd be playing the pistons more than the keys in some phrases.

Very interesting.

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